Chants encounter

Gyuto Monks, Laxson Auditorium, March 15

The Gyuto Monks took some getting used to—even before they started chanting.

The even dozen monks filed on stage in darkness and sat on the floor, “criss-cross applesauce,” as my 5-year-old puts it, in two lines making a V shape pointed toward an altar stage rear. For what seemed an eternity but was probably only four or five minutes, they sat there in the darkness, calmly adjusting their robes and otherwise preparing themselves. The only sound was the rustling of garments.

Then the lights came up and the monks began chanting in their deep, droning voices, the rich, multi-toned chords—amplified by the excellent sound system—flowing out and over the audience. Occasionally the monks rang the small brass bells each of them held. The chanting was cyclical, in that it went through several stages, or tones, and then repeated those stages—over and over, for 20 minutes or longer.

This was not, in short, anything like a performance or entertainment. There was no narrative structure to the chants, no beginning, middle and end as in Western music. This was ceremonial music. Once the shape of a chant was established, there was nothing to look forward to. You knew this was the sound, or sequence of sounds, that you were going to be listening to for quite some time.

Of course, you could watch the monks as they chanted. In their beautiful red and gold robes and elaborate ceremonial headgear, they were resplendent. And the richly colored Tibetan Buddhist scrolls and prayer flags hanging behind them were beautiful, as was the altar, with its large photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the center. Now and then some small ceremonial gesture or offering would be made. Not much happened, in other words.

Still, the chanting was beautiful. The monks have developed a technique for creating several tones in their throats at the same time, and the sound is profoundly affecting. It vibrates right into the listener’s body, as if giving an aural massage.

Eventually most of the audience did what I did, which was to shut my eyes and just sit there, breathing in and out and letting the chants roll over and through me. When I did that, listening was delightful. I became totally still, inside and out—no thoughts, no expectations, no desire to be anywhere but where I was, enjoying those marvelous sounds. When the monks sounded their bells, it was like a celestial ringing in my personal cosmos, reminding me how wonderful it was to be alive.

The monks did two ceremonial chants during the first half of their presentation and two more after intermission. For the second half, they added long horns and short trumpets, as well as large cymbals and standing drums. I liked the way the sounds bounced around in my mind, especially the cymbals.

Afterwards, the rinpoche, an older man with glasses, came out and answered questions through an interpreter. Just about everybody in the audience stayed. People wanted to know about the ceremonies and the scrolls. They wanted to know whether it was OK to applaud (it was). They wanted to know if they’d obtained spiritual merit from listening to the chants (they had). There were many questions. And then the rinpoche left, telling us to be happy, and we were.